08-Dec-2015 18 FEB
Internet censorship is how society cares for children, young people, and their parents
By Focus on the Family
Today’s blog post is a written version of a presentation that Brendan Malone from Focus on the Family NZ delivered last Thursday night in Wellington at a special event hosted by Internet NZ called ‘Sex and the Internet.’
The other guest speakers at the event were: Dr Andrew Jack - Chief Censor, Office of Film and Literature Classification; Martin Cocker - Executive Director of NetSafe; Joy Liddicoat, Assistant Commissioner of the Privacy Commission; and the night was MC'd by Philippa Tolley from RadioNZ.
Thank you to Internet NZ for hosting this event, and for extending an invite to Focus on the Family NZ to be present here this evening.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge my fellow panelists, because I think that diversity of thought and a free and open exchange of ideas on important issues is something vitally important for a healthy society.
Our organisation, Focus on the Family NZ, approaches these issues from a Christian worldview, and we have a particular guiding philosophy that could best be described as ‘Christian humanism’ which guides our work in this area.
This has several implications for how we approach these issues.
Firstly, one of the big focusses that we have is on human flourishing - the idea that true meaning in life is found when we flourish. What I mean by ‘flourish’ is becoming more fully engaged with life in a deep, meaningful and fulfilling way.
Now obviously the Internet is an amazing tool that can enhance human flourishing.
One of the obvious ways this happens is through the ability that it gives us to communicate easily and widely with others.
The term global village has been around for many years, but it’s only really been with the advent of the Internet that the world has actually become a true global village.
Before that, the global connections we had were tied to travel, trade, diplomacy, etc. - but very few people were involved, or had the financial capital to do those things.
Now that we have the Internet though, anyone who has access to a computer or smartphone can connect with anyone else almost instantly around the world.
This means that we can commune, connect, and share ideas with people across a diverse spectrum of age, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, education, ethnicity, etc.
So human connection and human intimacy can really flourish thanks to the Internet.
However there are some potential problems as well - and these can easily arise if the technology we are using becomes more important than the persons we are engaging with via that technology.
In that situation, a form of depersonalisation takes place as the technology becomes the dominant factor in the way people are relating to other human beings.
In the work that we do, one of the biggest issues where we see this problem arise most often is that of Internet pornography.
One of the fundamental aspects of our guiding philosophy is the idea that the human body is this profoundly beautiful thing which should draw us deeper into the reality of the human person who possesses that body.
The body is an invitation to encounter a person and all of their wonderful and miraculous complexity and dignity.
The problem with Internet pornography though, is that it doesn’t go to the next stage of encountering and engaging with the whole person.
Instead it stops at the level of the body, and we end up using bodies for our own gratification, not engaging with persons - we objectify the person, by turing their body into an object for our own personal gratification.
When this happens, human flourishing is harmed because there is no longer an authentic intimacy and connection with another person taking place.
And true meaning and depth can only be found when we commune and make connections that are real with the people around us.
So, if you have someone who spends regular or large amounts of time each week consuming Internet pornography, that is going to have an impact on them and the community around them.
This isn’t rocket science. We have an entire industry called ‘marketing’ that exists and is hugely successful solely because of the fundamental fact that exposing someone to visual images, even for just 30 seconds in an advert, or on a static billboard, can shape their very behaviour.
Exposure to visual images can shape your thoughts, beliefs, and even cause you to act a certain way by going and buying a product, or signing up for a new service, etc.
The same principle applies in the case of someone who is consuming large or regular amounts of Internet pornography.
Some of these negative effects are specific to those consuming the pornography. Like effects on the human brain, such as the way it can become hyper-responsive to Internet pornography while, at the same time, developing a numbed pleasure response to real sexual intimacy with a real flesh and blood person.
There are also other effects that impact relationships, families, and the wider community too.
Like the way in which Internet pornography can result in relationship dysfunction and serious intimacy problems, or it’s association with loss of productivity in the workplace, or the now well established link between Internet pornography and human trafficking.
Which is why we see proper censorship and regulatory controls as essential to human flourishing and the common good of New Zealand society.
You see, we are not solitary beings who live out our existence in isolation.
The human experience is communal, we live our lives in community.
This begins with the first community that we are born into, our family and extended family - which is a mini society where, hopefully, we find stability, security and learn how to interact with others in a just and loving way.
Then there is the wider community in which we live and operate, our neighbourhood, our country, the global community, the online community.
We might be part of a tribal community.
If we are religious we will be part of a faith community
Then there are the temporary communities that we move through at various stages of our lives, like our workplaces, sports club or universities.
It’s the very fact that we live out the human experience in a context of community, not in isolation, that we even need rights in the first place.
Our rights are there to ensure that we are able to flourish as human beings by being protected from unjust oppression, or the denial of our fundamental human freedoms.
What this means is that any discussion about rights always has to be weighed against the fact that there is a community in which those rights are going to be exercised.
So my actions aren’t just about me, but also about the impact they might have on the people around me - particularly the more vulnerable members of the community.
Our personal autonomy, and the amazing potential of Internet technology has to be balanced against the wellbeing of the communities in which we exercise that autonomy and operate those technologies.
This is why we believe that proper censorship and regulatory controls are so essential in this area.
Especially when it comes to safeguarding the wellbeing of children and young people.
I am a bit of a DIY weekend warrior, and I have a garage full of various tools that make my work easier, save me considerable time and effort, and increase my levels of accuracy and craftsmanship.
But no matter how enjoyable these tools are for me to use, I know that my children would be in harms way if I didn’t maintain basic controls to prevent them from using or accessing them while it is not age appropriate for them to do so.
Appropriate censorship and regulatory controls work in much the same way.
And I think they are one of the basic duties-of-care that we as a society owe to the children and young people in NZ.
And we also owe this to parents too, I believe.
I often have people tell me: ‘well it’s up to parents to police and control what happens in their own homes’
And I totally agree with that - of course parents should be aware and actively seeking to keep their children safe.
This is precisely why Focus on the Family NZ offers resources and seminars to parents on Internet safety and pornography-proofing the family home. We want to see them thrive and confidently navigate these important areas.
But at the same time, that particular notion - which puts all of the responsibility on to parents - is starting to look more and more out of touch with the reality of modern life with each passing year.
Firstly, most children spend large amounts of time away from their parents or the family home now - whether that be at school, or at friends’ houses, or playing sports - and parents are often having to work longer hours to pay the mortgage and feed the family.
And secondly, Internet technology has jumped in leaps and bounds in the last 10 years - making it harder and harder for parents to maintain the same levels of control that they once had prior to these technological advances.
I look back now and it’s absolutely astounding to me how advanced these technologies have become in the 15 years since I started specifically working with them back in the year 2000.
Once upon a time if you wanted to access pornography in the family home you had to spend money, go somewhere and get the content, and then bring it back and hide it somewhere before carefully planing your use of it.
When I look back now I realise that my parents enjoyed a really good level of control over the content that we were exposed to as children.
They had a couple of TV stations that went off air around midnight each day, and a handful of radio stations to keep an eye on.
Any problematic content had to be accessed via some form of hardcopy medium, which usually had to be paid for, and even then, couldn't really be used by us kids without great levels of planning and execution.
And today’s Internet pornography makes a Playboy magazine now seem about as extreme as a copy of National Geographic.
Things have changed dramatically in this regard, and today, as a parent, I have to contend with countless sources of online content, across multiple technologies, where extremely hardcore content can be accessed quickly, easily, very privately and without a single cent having to change hands.
Which is why I often chuckle when I hear or see people talking about this issue as if parenting in the modern digital age is simply a matter of turning off a device or installing a piece of software. That’s definitely an important part of the equation, but more is needed as well.
It’s a lot more complex now, and there is now a far greater need for regulatory controls and censorship beyond the family home than there ever was before.
Let me finish by saying that we at Focus on the Family NZ are under no illusions about the enormity of navigating such waters.
There will always be a tension between appropriate censorship and regulatory controls and authentic freedom of expression.
However I don’t think we should be afraid and run from this tension by adopting an anything-goes approach and then passing off all the policing responsibilities to parents and caregivers.
I think that this tension is a healthy thing which generally keeps us from going to extremes.
And the way that the technology has changed means that we would be remiss if we left the entire burden of protecting children, young people and other vulnerable members of the community solely on parents.
The work that we do at Focus on the Family NZ is about helping individuals, couples and families to really thrive - and for us that means caring about more than just what happens in my own patch, but also about the wellbeing of the community at large, and how my actions impact them.
And I think that this is a really important aspect of the discussion that is often missed when heated debates about regulatory frameworks and censorship arise.
There is often a lot of talk about freedom of expression, and accusations of ‘moral policing’, but the most important issue of all - the protection of children, young people and other vulnerable members of the community remains largely ignored.
Thanks for listening, and once again thank you to Internet NZ for inviting Focus on the Family NZ to be part of this important event tonight.